Thursday, January 14, 2010

Cafe Rio vs. Chipotle

Cafe Rio
24312 Rockfield Blvd.
Lake Forest, CA 92630

I have to admit something, I do not like Chipotle. There I said it. I think it is bland tasting Mexican food. Mexican food for me is all about the flavors, and in my opinion Chipotle is pretty sterile Mexican food. I have many, many friends that do not feel the same way as me though. They love Chipotle, to the point of ridiculing me for not liking it. So when I heard there was going to be a new, "Chipotle" style restaurant opening up, I was not too excited, but I kind of wanted to prove to my Chipotle friends, that their beloved restaurant could be easily duplicated, and thus proven to be just an average place to eat.

So I got six of my most ardent Chipotle fans together, on two separate trips and this is what they came up with.

Here is Richard's dish. Richard is probably the biggest fan of Chipotle that I know. He would take only Chipotle on a deserted island for the rest of his life. He opted for the fire-grilled steak burrito, served enchilada style. The burrito was two dollars more than Chipotle, because it was served wet. He liked the option of getting it with cheese on it, but was not into the enchilada sauce. He thought it was too over-powering. He thought that the burrito was just as good as Chipotle. He also noted the great drink selection that they have. They have twelve beverage options at their fountain.

Now here is Luis's fire-grilled steak burrito. He felt that this burrito was bigger than Chipotle's, but was disappointed that chips and guacamole was an extra $4.25. He decided against the chips and guacamole. He liked the burrito okay, but did not think it was as good as Chipotle's. Both Luis and Richard commented that Chipotle's rice is way better than Cafe Rio's rice.

On this trip I decided on the two enchilada plate with pinto beans and rice. I got one beef and one pork barbacoa enchilada. The beef was bland, but the barbacoa was sweet, almost like a chocolate. Very good flavor, but not what I was expecting. The boys were right, the rice was just average, and the beans were mediocre. They also used a lot of enchilada sauce on this dish, so it was hard to taste anything but the sauce.


Here is Emily's cheese quesadilla and side of rice. Emily is on her quest to find the best cheese quesadilla in all of Orange county, so if you could help her out in this, she will be eternally in your debt. This unfortunately was not her best quesadilla, but she did think it was good. She especially liked the tortilla, and could tell that they were made fresh. She felt the rice was okay, but not as good as Chipotle's.

Besides myself, Marcy is the only one with us who is not a big fan of Chipotle. She is from the San Diego area, so she likes real Mexican food, and thinks that Chipotle is too Americanized. She ordered the chicken tostada. At $5.25, this could be the best value on the menu. The tostada includes a corn tortilla, beans, cheese, rice, sour cream, tortilla strips, choice of dressing, along with your choice of meat. Really more of a taco salad, than tostada, she liked the dish, and was happy that Cafe Rio had a broader menu and was more authentic than Chipotle.


Sara settled on this chicken burrito that she describes as, good not great. She thought that it had a plain taste, and after she let me sample it, I decided that she was dead on with that account, very bland. She did comment that the tortilla was good, but she still likes the Chipotle burrito better.

Kevin got the pork barbacoa burrito. He described the meat as being sugary, but flavorful. He did not like the fact that you could not pick the burrito up, because there was too much liquid in it. This is true of a lot of their dishes, very runny. He also thought the overall operation was not as smooth as Chipotle's. The assembly-line at Cafe Rio, does not run as smooth as Chipotle's, but we were there at peak lunch hour. It was chaos behind the glass, and they seemed to have too many people back there, and food easily got lost in the confusion.

This time I got the two tacos. The one on the right is the barbacoa and the one on the left is the chile roast beef. The beef was as plain tasting as it looks and very dry, but the pork barbacoa had that sweet, mole like taste that got raves from both Richard and Luis on our first trip to Cafe Rio. I also got black beans and rice, but they were just okay. The salsa that they have here tastes like cut up tomatoes, there is no heat or spice to speak of.

So how did this experiment work out? Well Richard, Luis, Emily and Marcy all said they would come back to try it again. Luis especially liked the fact that they have a card that after you buy ten meals, you get one free. Richard said that Cafe Rio could work into his rotation of restaurants, but he is still a Chipotle man. He said he was excited to try the coconut shrimp taco special on Tuesdays though. Sara and Kevin can not be swayed from Chipotle. They thought it was okay, but not enough to merit a return trip. So thanks to my guinea pigs, pictured below. Thanks for all of your opinions, you guys rock!

I have been to Cafe Rio three times now. I have seven more times to get my free meal. I think it will be a long while before I get that elusive meal. Not that it is bad food, but it is just not my kind of Mexican food. Just like Chipotle is not my kind of Mexican food. So I will stop bashing Chipotle, and just take it for what it is, just not my cup of sangria.

Out of five multi-colored chairs, five being best to zero being worst, Cafe Rio receives 2.5 multi-colored chairs.

For more information on Cafe Rio, you can check them out here;

Cafe Rio on Urbanspoon


  1. I don't like Chipotle either. And even though Cafe Rio is pretty close to my work, I don't think I'll try them. It seems silly to me to eat Mexican food like this when I can go to Santa Ana or Orange and get food lightyears away in taste and quality.

    I will say I admire Chipotle's business practices. The way they source their meat is commendable, especially being a fast casual chain like they are.

  2. More than anything Cafe Rio raises questions about Chipotle. Why don't they offer shrimp? Why don't they offer as much customization with their burritos? Inquiring minds want to know.

  3. I can go to Chipotle or Cafe Rio and get a halfway decent meal (and I like Cafe Rio better - they are worth at least a try) but they are the types of places I would go to only if I was in a rush and they were clearly the most convenient option. What I don't understand is the insane cult-like devotion and praise so many people lavish on each of them and it's really only these two chains that get it. It's several levels of craziness above and beyond, "Hey, Chipotle and Cafe Rio have some great food." I've been to over 200 Mexican restaurants in the county and I can tell you something is wrong when 2 places get 98% of the attention while all the other restaurants share the remaining 2%.

  4. @Christian - I'm just as baffled with this phenomenon as you are.

  5. I think a lot of people just like bland Mexican food. That is all I can think of.

  6. I'm a big fan of the red chili quesadilla at El Taco in Orange, very different, and I love the red sauce, so maybe Emily should try it.

    Part of the reason for the praise I think is that they are better than the old Mexican chain standbys (El Torito and Acapulco). But as we all know chain restaurants flavor food their food for the masses, so they will always have a lot of fans. Plus the food tends to be consistent from store to store, which is why people like the safe option of these places.

  7. Everytime I ate the Chicken bowl at Chipotle I would have an upset stomach, lots of gas pains. I am in love with Cafe Rio! We are eating there two to three times a week in Lake Forest. We love the grilled chicken and grilled roast beef enchiladas with the mild sauce and the guacamole and chips. None of their sauces are really hot, I did not care for the "hot" red sauce. The mild and medium sauces have a lot of flavor. We have received two free meals, we filled up two meal cards so far. Great friendly service AND they have Dr. Pepper and Diet Dr. Pepper. Cafe Rio is heaven! A Tustin location off Newport and Irvine Blvd is opening sometime in May. We have been bringing several friends to Cafe Rio and they all have loved it.

  8. Susan, Thanks for the heads up on the new location. I want to give Cafe Rio another try soon. Thanks for the comment.

  9. best quesadilla - Super Pollo in Costa Mesa...have emily try...

  10. Chipotle is much better than Cafe Rio. Some people say that Cafe Rio is better but in conclusion the Chipotle line is much longer than the Cafe Rio proving that more people prefer it.

  11. Anonymous #1 - I'll let Emily know about Super Pollo. She's definitely not an adventurous eater though. Thanks for the tip. I'll probably have to try it myself.

    Anonymous #2 - To be truthful, since this post, I have not been to either place, so that's over five years now. We live in the land of great Mexican food, so there are tons of other options I'd rather explore. Thanks for giving me your take on the these two places though. Also, thanks for taking the time to read the blog, I really appreciate it.

  12. there aren't that many good Mexican places where I come from

  13. Anonymous - I take it you are not from Southern California then. For some people that do not have good Mexican spots around them, I'm sure they even love Taco Bell.

  14. Try Barbacoa Mexican Grill...much better than either Chipotle or Cafe Rio...

  15. Anonymous - I'll definitely keep an eye out for Barbacoa Grill when we are up in Westwood. Would love to see what they are all about. Thanks for the tip.